It seemed that the Formula One status quo was maintained judging from the final classification chart but it sure took a cracker of a race with tons of unpredictability to achieve such results on the 2016 season opener. Nico Rosberg led a Mercedes 1-2 with teammate Lewis Hamilton to start this year’s campaign while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished third despite a superb start.
Vettel broke through the Mercedes front-row lockout as the lights turned green after both the Silver Arrows’ starts seemed bogged down. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen also slithered his way through to get to second place ahead of Rosberg while the pole-sitting Hamilton lost several more places and dropped as low as sixth on the first lap.
After regaining fifth from the Williams of Felipe Massa, Hamilton was held up for several laps by the frenetic Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen. Hamilton was asked to lengthen his opening stint with the supersoft tires, continuing to run after Rosberg and Vettel made their own pit stops early. Raikkonen inherited the race lead as he mimicked Hamilton’s tire strategy with the extended stint on supersofts, where both cars eventually dove into the pits on the same lap.
Just as the front runners finished their pit stops, the first major accident of the year happened when Fernando Alonso ran into the back of Esteban Gutierrez at the Turn 3 braking zone. As Gutierrez positioned his debuting Haas F1 car to the inside of the corner, the slipstreaming Alonso attempted to weave around to the outside but Gutierrez had already started to slow down, resulting in the McLaren hitting the left rear of the Haas. The McLaren dug into the thick gravel trap sending Alonso into a spectacular and frightening roll while Gutierrez merely beached his car on the gravel. The television camera caught a completely wrecked and upside-down McLaren near the barriers of the Turn 3 runoff area but a collective sigh of relief quickly followed as Alonso managed to squirm his way out of the car and walk away under his own power, albeit visibly winded. Both Gutierrez and Alonso walked away unscathed.
With an abundance of debris on the track, the red flag was brought out on Lap 18 as the cars formed a queue along the pit lane. In an interview during the intermission, Haas F1 team owner Gene Haas was asked to describe the incident, saying that Alonso went for “a heck of a ride.” Those were definitely words I would have expected from a team owner used to seeing such accidents in NASCAR.
Kidding aside, the teams were permitted to change tires under the red flag conditions, so Mercedes crucially took advantage of this and changed both Rosberg and Hamilton on the prime mediums while both Ferraris opted for the supersofts again.
A huge beneficiary to the red flag was Gutierrez’s Haas teammate Romain Grosjean, who had not pitted and in effect, earned a “free pit stop” by changing his tires and losing no track position. Grosjean would not pit again and consolidated his position until the checkered flag, earning what he called a “win” with sixth place for the debuting American team. I voted for Grosjean on the official Driver of the Day poll in the F1 website.
More action was produced as the race resumed but Raikkonen suffered an engine failure and had to retire shortly after. Meanwhile, Hamilton was again held hostage by a Toro Rosso, this time that of Carlos Sainz. The impressive Toro Rosso chassis powered by a year-old Ferrari engine kept the championship-winning Mercedes at bay for a handful of laps before Sainz had to replace his degrading soft compound tires.
Freed up, Hamilton’s next challenge was Verstappen, who also started to struggle on the soft compound. Verstappen called in to pit but that caught his pit crew off guard as he had to wait for a delayed tire to be attached. The eighteen-year-old was left fuming on the team radio after his request for new tires was not properly entertained. He lost positions and slotted in behind teammate Sainz after the unfortunate pit stop.
The Toro Rossos continued charging as they harassed rookie Jolyon Palmer of Renault for around a half dozen laps, the three of them battling for ninth, tenth, and eleventh places. Sainz locked up his tires numerous times and struggled to pass Palmer as Verstappen simultaneously applied pressure from behind. Palmer couldn’t continue his impressive defense due to much older tires and relinquished to Sainz’s persistence at the end of the main straight, also subsequently defeated by Verstappen’s cunning maneuver around the outside of Turn 3. All three young drivers displayed impressive driving on that battle, with Palmer also demonstrating measured racing skills in an earlier close quarters duel with Valtteri Bottas. Sainz and Verstappen finished ninth and tenth respectively, although they both had a minor tangle together at Turn 15 before the end of the race. It appeared as though the young Verstappen unraveled after blaming his team for the tire strategy and being stuck behind his teammate until the end.
Back at the front, Vettel pitted from the lead to bolt on the soft compound tires as the long-running Silver Arrows stayed out. During a post-race interview, Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene said that they attempted an “aggressive” strategy in light of the decision to use supersofts on both cars after the red flag period. Unfortunately, the attempt may have cost them a win as Mercedes indeed reached the end of the race with both cars on the medium compound tires. Vettel pushed his Ferrari with stickier tires to catch up with Hamilton on aging tires, setting up an intriguing duel over the final handful of laps but Vettel made a costly error at Turn 15, running wide over the grass runoff, giving back Hamilton a comfortable gap over the final two laps.
Unlike practice and qualifying, Rosberg drove flawlessly to cruise to his fourth consecutive race win and the first of this season. Beyond the podium, hometown hero Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and demonstrated what looked like improved performance on the Red Bull by overtaking the Williams of Massa down the main straight. Massa finished fifth, followed by Grosjean, Hulkenberg in the Force India, and Bottas, who gritted through eight places after starting from sixteenth with a five-place grid penalty.
After an anti-climactic trial of the new qualifying format (which is likely to receive no second chance) the previous day, this race truly shined under the Melbourne sun. All cars seem more reliable and teams look like they’re more evenly-matched than imagined. The clash between gladiators Mercedes and Ferrari was heated on this opening race, while the jostling along the middle of the pack appeared unpredictable. This definitely bodes well as F1’s longest season in its history moves on to Bahrain in two weeks. I strongly hope this year turns out to be F1’s most compelling season in recent memory. One race down, twenty more to go.